TOP 500 REVIEWERon 4 January 2005
Most people, when they think of the Enlightenment, think first of 18th France, of Voltaire and of Diderot. The late Roy Porter, in his spirited Enlightenment (Penguin paperback) claimed that the roots of the Enlightenment were actually in England. Then we have recently had James Buchan's Capital of the Mind, which claims in its subtitle that the philosophers of Edinburgh "changed the world". Jonathan Israel says that these are all parochial approaches, and that the Enlightenment was a movement whose international character he intends to illustrate. He has indeed read prodigiously in international literature: his bibliography gives 26 pages of published primary sources and 31 of secondary literature, and these include titles in Latin, English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish and Danish.
Nevertheless, what emerges quite clearly from this book is that he places the origins of the Radical Enlightenment very firmly in 17th century Holland in general and in Spinoza in particular; and although one might perhaps expect this from a historian whose previous book was an equally massive work on the Dutch Republic (OUP), he makes a totally convincing case for this. In the course of it we learn much about many Dutch thinkers. Many of them are scarcely known in this country; and there are some, like Anthonie van Dale and Frederik van Leenhof, who according to Professor Israel are almost unknown even in Holland today.
True, it is a Frenchman, René Descartes, who could be said to have planted the seeds of what would become the Enlightenment, and there is a good deal about him in the book; but the principal theatre for the debate about Descartes is again shown to be Holland, where he had moved for safety in 1628, where the Discours de la Méthode was first published in 1637, and from where it later spread to other countries. Indeed, Spinoza's first published work was The Principles of Cartesian Philosophy (1663). I think myself that the title of the book is somewhat misleading. It ought really to have been called Spinoza and the Enlightenment, since it is almost wholly devoted to his influence: all later Enlightenment thinkers of whatever nation are discussed almost exclusively in terms of the extent to which they were in agreement or disagreement with him.
That debate is described in exhaustive - I would say - exhausting - detail, since in fact the various arguments are repeated over and over again. There are principally three parties to this argument: thinkers of the Radical Enlightenment who follow Spinoza more or less all the way; those of the Moderate Enlightenment, who accept a broadly rational approach but stop short of denying a providential deity and the principal mysteries of the Christian faith; and the Conservatives or fideists who demand total acceptance of the traditional doctrines of the churches about such matters as miracles, the existence of Hell and of the Devil. Jonathan Israel patiently gives the arguments of this last group more space than most histories of the Enlightenment would do. Interestingly, many members of even the first group often denied that they were "Spinozists". That label was used by anti-rationalists, right up to eve of the French Revolution in a positively McCarthyist way to discredit even members of the second group, who themselves went out of their way to condemn Spinoza in the strongest terms. The true Spinozists often protected themselves by giving a full statement of the Spinozan positions and then following them with perfunctory or even deliberately feeble objections.
Despite its enormous length and the width of Israel's research, the book does remain rather narrowly focussed. The debates described in the book are largely about religion and about the challenges to deductive rationalism both from the churches and from the pragmatic schools. Such discussion as there is of Enlightenment political thought is again entirely related to the influence of or reaction against Spinoza's unfinished Tractatus Politicus. So, for instance, the debate in France between the thèse royale, the thèse nobiliaire, and democracy does not feature on its own terms. At the end there is an interesting short section on Diderot and his relationship to Spinozism; but there is nothing much of interest on Montesquieu, Voltaire, Helvétius or Holbach, all of whom are considerable figures in the history of the French Enlightenment. And there are just two references to Hume.
There are two other major criticisms: the book takes much previous knowledge for granted (for example, what exactly had been both the psychological and political teaching Thomas Hobbes). Although there are several references to Malebranche and Malebranchisme, there is nowhere a concise account of what that philosopher taught: the "Occasionalism" for which he is famous has just two references in the index, only one of which links that doctrine with him.
However, Professor Israel has undoubteldy written a most important book which significantly shifts the focus of Enlightenment studies. For that and for his immense scholarship he deserves the praise that reviewers have heaped upon his book.